It was fog. It was a very, very dense fog. London had not experienced such a pea-souper since the 1950s when coal fires spewed forth their hearths into the lower atmosphere for it only to sink to street level and clog the roads as well as everyone’s lungs.
So this fog was a freak. As the 113 from Edgeware to Oxford Circus smashed into the 98 from Pound Lane to Tottenham Court Road, Millicent was about to suggest to the rather dour little man sitting next to her on the upper deck, ‘It’s almost like something out of a science fiction movie.’
However, her utterance was cut off as she drew breath when the red leviathans met in a thud and crunch of fibre glass, grinding metal and tinkling glass close to Lord’s Cricket Ground.
‘That’s us stumped,’ said a voice from the further reaches of the routemaster. The voice laughed at its own joke. And then a titter rippled forward as if it was obliged. Then there was a pause. It was obvious no one had been injured. The deceleration was less than that when the heavy-footed driver halted at any of the request stops. Such was the pace of the collision that pedestrians were outstripping the bus.
The dour man looked at Millicent. She was unsure how to interpret the glance. She didn’t know if she should return it. But, of course, being Millicent, she did. Having found his glance batted back, he had to respond. Response wasn’t one of his natural inclinations. He had spent years cultivating ‘dour’ precisely so that no one would initiate conversation with him. Technically she hadn’t started a conversation, he later realised, but in that instant he felt there was a need for an utterance.
‘Fog,’ he said.
‘No,’ she said, ‘Millicent,’ and held her hand out to him. Just as he naturally avoided conversation, she normally refrained from physical contact. Time was suspended as she watched a limp appendage being dangled in front of her. It travelled even more slowly as his hand approached hers. Well, not so much a hand, she screamed internally, as a battleship grey woollen glove, one of those scratchy ones. Nano seconds before impact the hand was withdrawn and re-submitted without its cladding.
As shaking hands goes it was a success, to their mutual surprise. Each found the other hand reassuringly warm and unclammy. They reclaimed them without further comment or eye contact.
Around them the bus was disgorging its load. They were eventually alone when he said, ‘I suppose we’d better leave.’
She demurely raised herself and straightened her raincoat. It was a natural reaction, but she didn’t know if she should lead the way or let him. The etiquette of leaving a crashed bus was not something she had ever considered. She stood back. He moved forward with a polite nod. He would have seen trainers, just as she noticed his rather heavy brogues. When they stepped into the street there was that awkward moment which begs conversation, but inevitably leaves the words suspended in preparation.
‘OK, everyone in the pub. Drinks on me.’
She looked up with a look that managed somehow to mix joy and bewilderment, only for it to drain away when she realised those words had issued from the mouth of the bus driver and not from… him. His expression, she witnessed, went from bewilderment to joy and, as well as any man can in a pair of leaden brogues, he skipped into a position to gently take her elbow in his woollen glove. She was steered into the melee that was herded into an adjacent hostelry.
The odour of the public house was something of a shock, more of a shock than the collision. The inability of the sound to dissipate beyond the walls disoriented their senses. Such was its effect that he ordered himself a Stella Artois and she specified a Cointreau. Both were somewhat surprised by the flavour of their respective beverages.
Somehow, luckily, they managed to tuck themselves into a small alcove and, unluckily, they were able to talk.
‘Funny weather,’ she offered.
‘Most inclement,’ he fired back, after a pause.
‘I must apologise for my shoes,’ she said, avoiding his gaze.
‘You must not,’ he affirmed.
‘Oh but I insist. I only resort to trainers for public transport. In my bag I have my black Oxfords, not too dissimilar in style to your….brogues.’
If his heart was ever going to leap, it leapt at that moment.